WDFW takes Important Step in Post-fire Habitat Recovery

Wildfires that tortured the Pacific Northwest in September did a number on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area (Swanson Lakes), located about 10 miles south of the town of Creston.

Swanson Lakes is a 21,000-acre tract of native grasslands nestled among the channeled scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Shrub-steppe and riparian/wetlands comprise the dominant habitats and much of the area is rangeland, with some old Conservation Reserve Program fields. The undulating landscape is characterized by numerous pothole and rim rock lakes and one intermittent stream.

Z Lake in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area is one example of the unique channeled scablands and shrubby habitat. Photo courtesy of WDFW.

In western habitats, wildfire threatens native vegetation in two ways. First, given our rangeland’s generally unnatural fire cycles from fire management and encroaching invasive species, wildfires often burn much hotter than they would in pristine habitats. Fires that are too hot scorch the seed bank and possibly the underground root structure of native shrubs like sagebrush, damaging the plant’s potential to regenerate. Second, invasive weeds are incredibly prolific and competitive. In the case of the earth being blackened down to bare soil, weeds can quickly flourish, outcompeting native plants, often by simply covering the area, effectively shading out the native species.

Fortunately, WDFW was poised to respond, leveraging funds in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to quickly apply native grass seed mix to the charred Swanson Lakes landscape. Aerial seed drops covered about 930 acres on October 22nd, scattering two varieties of bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, Sandberg bluegrass, and prairie dune grass across Swanson Lakes and a portion of adjacent BLM lands, said Mike Finch, WDFW Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area Assistant Manager.

Fall is not the ideal season to sow grasses, but the timing could not have been better. The WDFW and BLM made the seed drops in October to ensure native seeds were available to germinate on the exposed soil ahead of any invasive species seeds. Additionally, wet snow that fell October 23rd and 24th worked well to soak the seed into the soil surface, increasing the likelihood of establishment through good seed-to-soil contact. The WDFW plans to return with machinery in drier conditions to scratch the seeds slightly deeper into the soil surface.

Finch mentioned that Swanson Lakes was one of three areas receiving fall seed drops. The areas were prioritized for immediate reseeding due to their deeper soils, being more likely to establish and sustain healthy native grasses by allowing roots to grow down into moist soils for good summer survival. Understanding site conditions and prioritizing restoration efforts is important for project success and the best use of resources, particularly with the cost of native grass seed as high as $200 per acre, plus application time.

Native grass seed being dropped in Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, October 22nd. Photo courtesy of Mike Finch, WDFW.

Native shrub-steppe communities are a critical part of the ecosystem in the arid west, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of wildlife. The sharp-tailed grouse, for example, is an iconic western prairie grouse species that thrives in shrub-steppe habitat. Precisely why maintaining quality native habitat in Swanson Lakes is of critical importance. The area was acquired by the Bonneville Power Administration, primarily as a wildlife mitigation project for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a state “threatened” species.

By leveraging funding and relationships with the BLM, and making smart decisions on the use of available resources, WDFW can sustain unique and important shrub-steppe habitat areas like Swanson Lakes to benefit wildlife and the public user well into the future.

Raising Pheasant from the Ground Up

Sustainable farming practices to benefit wildlife is a topic for discussion in grain capitols across the country. To the farmer, the mention of sustainability may trigger consideration of production and bottom line. To the biologist, thoughts of crop rotation and managed fallow lands provide wildlife food, water and shelter. And to the economist, efficiency and bang-for-the-buck in the form of yield versus effort/acreage sewn would likely provoke a back-of-the-napkin chart explaining the benefits.

So how does one actually define sustainable farming? A combination of all of the above. Sustainable farming includes economics, reducing production acreage to focus on the most productive for maximum yield. The less productive ground can be leased into CRP or to an NGO like Pheasants Forever to manage for wildlife.

To take it one step further, habitat-minded agriculture may provide a mix of no-till planting and forage and cover crops built into rotation schedules. This permits soil replenishment and works to combat invasive species by providing different plant competitors, insects, and invasive plant treatment options. Forage or cover crops can be sewn alongside winter cover like cattails and other wetland habitats to reduce energy expense and vulnerability critters may experience when seeking food and cover in winter. Pollinators benefit as well.

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Sounds great, right, but are the benefits actually attainable? Absolutely. Case-studies have proven the benefits to the farmer and wildlife through these sustainable practices. Midwest farms have shown production of preserve-scale wild pheasant through habitat-minded farming practices while maintaining or increasing their bottom line. And who out there would argue that they don’t enjoy wildlife like upland birds? If you answered “no one”, we couldn’t agree more!

If you find this encouraging from any perspective, reach out to your local Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever Chapter. In southeast Washington/northeast Oregon area, contact us at bmpf@bmpf258.com for more information.

Upland Stewardship Begins at Home

What’s the #1 threat to habitat on undeveloped public lands? If you guessed invasive plant species, you get a gold star for the day. Overall, habitat lost to civil development is a critical threat to fish and wildlife, putting tremendous importance on conservation and management of those precious public acres still intact.

Managing public land is important to provide habitat suitable for wildlife species and is accomplished through taxpayer and sportsman’s funds. For federal lands, this means congressional appropriations must be approved for specific geographic areas and funding limits.

While public lands, both state and federal, are at much lower risk of civil development, the economics of habitat management is a major driver in our ability to maintaining high quality habitat, and here is why.

Invasive species are incredibly competitive and successful at overtaking desired native species. With no natural predator controls (i.e. herbivory and parasitism) and an adaptive edge to the climates in which they occur, many species can create monocultures in short order. What’s more is that the increasing cost of invasive species control detracts from government ability to fund general habitat management and enhancement.

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Once established, eradicating an invasive plant is incredibly difficult and extremely costly, in the billions of dollars nationwide, annually. Our ability to control invasive species on public lands can change dramatically with political leadership. And when natural resources budgets are cut, our ability to effectively maintain habitat is hamstrung.

Early Detection and Rapid Response is the normal mode of operation for habitat managers, but budget cuts cause vulnerability in on-the-ground effectiveness. Labor cuts can reduce the number of employees and hours spent afield performing Early Detection monitoring. Supply cuts can reduce the available tools to implement Rapid Response once invasive species are detected, as well as reduce the overall time or acreage that biologists can treat.

High-quality habitat is not just nice to have for an easy, clean hunt. It’s a must for sustainable upland bird species and hunter opportunity. Its easy to assume that habitat management and controlling invasive species lies in the hands of qualified biologists, but make no mistake, quality habitat starts at home with you, the general public.

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⇑⇑ The seat cover in my Tundra harbors a number of invasive species ⇑⇑

As our talented canines careen across the grasslands searching for sharptails or cut through brush following a running grouse trail, their fur picks up invasive weed seeds that can be easily spread to otherwise weed free areas. Tailgate checks and post-hunt spa treatments (for those of us who own long-haired pups like setters and Munsterlanders)  are necessary to remove to potentially harmful grass awns and bur-like seeds.

Most importantly, uplanders that embark on rooster road trips would be remiss if they failed to clean the nooks and crannies of their bird hunting chariot prior to driving half way across the nation. A single germinated seed from a nasty invader like cheat grass (Bromus tectorum) can quickly threaten native species and impact habitat suitability.

Be sure to clean out the truck bed, pet crates and blankets, truck seats and seat covers, spray down floor mats and vacuum the crevasses that can harbor seeds.

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⇑⇑ Cleaning vests, kennels, truck beds, and interiors is critical ⇑⇑

If your truck cap has a carpet liner, inspect it with scrutiny. Your dog will shake in the truck bed, flinging weed seeds onto the ceiling and anywhere else they may attach, simply waiting to be offloaded in an otherwise clean area 1,000 miles from where they were picked up.

And the cleaning spree should not end with the truck and kennels. Our vests and clothing can trap a terrifying number of seeds. When was the last time you check your hunting vest pockets for seeds? Hundreds of grass seeds can gather in vest pockets as we traverse the prairies. Dog vests can capture a number of species as well, like bur chervil (Anthriscus caucalis), which wreaks havoc on native grasses and even competes with yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) in the arid west.

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⇑⇑ A water bottle pocket of my hunting vest captures many seeds and plant debris ⇑⇑

Conservation and habitat management are influenced by each and every one of us. Its your duty as an uplander to exercise your stewardship abilities and battle the spread of invasive species. The future of our public natural resources and habitat depend on it.